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Sirens

Sirens were created by the Greek goddess, Demeter. A group of maidens failed to protect Demeter’s daughter, Kore who was the younger version of Persephone, from being kidnapped by Hades. To give the negligent maidens the ability to fly in search of Kore everywhere in the world, Demeter transformed half of their voluptuous figures into birds. Initially, Sirens were women with claws, bird tails and wings.

Aphrodite also claimed to have given bird characteristics to some women. Her curse was punishment upon the virgin-maidens who refused to submit themselves to men.

Ulysses and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse

The suffering of Sirens continued. They were forced to compete in a music contest against Muses. The Sirens lost. The Muses plucked all the feathers off the wings of the Sirens in order to create crowns to be worn at the winning ceremony. Appalled by their misfortune, the Sirens turned white and dove into the water, forming a cluster of flowery islands surrounded by rocks.

Sirens by JohnDotegowskiNo longer able to fly, Sirens regained their human legs and hid within meadows covered in flowers. At noon each day, the wind paused as Sirens sang haunted tunes enticing sailors to jump into the sea and bring about their deaths. Sirens gathered the corpses and bones in the meadows where they waited for their next victims.

Odysseus ordered his crew to plug their ears with beeswax so they wouldn’t be attracted to the songs of Sirens. Tied to the mast, Odysseus listened to their tunes without taking his life. If any man escaped their temptations, Sirens plunged themselves into the waves and died.

Orpheus protected the Argonauts by playing a lyre and singing his own song. The purity of his voice overpowered the Sirens’ false promises that any man who joined them would gain wisdom.

Sirens depicted holding lyres and lamenting the dead appeared on pre-Christian tombs. They waited for the souls of heroes to leave their human bodies and take flight within the images of birds. Sirens attempted to catch the souls of the dead once they took on bird forms.

Mermaid by ChuuStarEgyptians dubbed Sirens as souls who failed to reach the otherworld. Sirens essentially became bi-polar, at times acting as compassionate beings who led a select group of souls to a superior dimension and, other times acting bitter toward humans by ruining the lives of the living.

Europeans preferred portraying their Sirens as beautiful women with bodies in the form of half-fish instead of birds. Mermaids were limited to aquatic life and differed from Sirens because of they were sea creatures. Later, mermaids adapted benevolent qualities while Sirens retained their temptress nature.

Sirens represented the fatal results of succumbing to desire. Any man who survived their seductive calls was deemed to hold high morals and a strong character. Seductive antagonists tempting conflicted heroes provided the same intensity to storylines as when beastly creatures overpowered weak heroes.

Title image by JohnDotegowski.

This article was originally posted on May 14, 2011.

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8 Comments

  1. Avatar Autumn2May says:

    Interesting article. I didn’t know the history of sirens and didn’t realize they had bird forms in some stories. Great job! 🙂

    • Avatar Janie Bill says:

      Thank you Autumn. I must admit, I have always been intrigued by sirens. Conflicting portrayals in novels and movies shows them as evil or sensuous making it difficult for me to get a grasp on what they actually were, also.

      Happy reading!
      Janie

  2. Avatar A.J. Zaethe says:

    This was very informative. Great for ideas. Sirens I knew had a bird form before the mer form, so when peopel began making references to the mer form, I was confused. But now knowing there were a few types, that is very cool.

    Keep the myths coming.

    • Avatar Janie Bill says:

      I know what you mean. It is difficult to clarify what mythological figures tie together with all the modifications due to cultural and religious influences. As with most interpretations, the mysterious sirens fell under perceptions of the explorers who were exposed to foreigners’ beliefs.

      Thanks for stopping by,

      Janie

  3. Awesome article! I twisted the Siren myth for my novella “Silver Thaw.” I love taking these old myths and turning them on their heads. There’s so much power to illustrate timeless truths in these old stories…

    • Avatar Janie Bill says:

      Hi Amy,

      Mythological beings and their characteristics make excellent platforms for contemporary fantasies. Even though man can disprove the likelihood sirens ever existed the qualities they possessed represented man’s struggle with nature and himself, universal lessons in man’s eternal quest for truth.

      Your title is catchy!

      Janie

  4. Avatar J P Ashman says:

    Very insightful article. I’ve been writing sirens into my second novel (Black Guild) – the bird variety – and heard of the mer variety, but reading about it all in your article pins it all together nicely.

  5. I like the Egyptian take on the Siren. It’s really interesting to imagine them as lost souls because then the bi-polar tendency would make sense. Maybe they would be compassionate and not want humans to suffer the same lost fate they endure, and then other times they might be jealous of the living. Great article.

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